FCH's Starnes testifies at congressional hearing

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By The Staff

Greg Starnes, chief executive officer of Fayette County Hospital and Long Term Care, testified at a recent congressional hearing in Washington, D.C.
The Subcommittee on Health under the Committee On Energy and Commerce heard testimony from various witnesses about implementation of the electronic information technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act. The act requires hospitals and physicians' offices across the United States to implement electronic health records for all patients.
U.S Rep. John Shimkus (R-Collinsville) is the ranking member of the subcommittee on health. He is concerned about additional costs the act will require and the abilities of some small and rural hospitals to meet the requirements of the HITECH Act.
"Many hospitals have faced numerous challenges during the economic downturn we continue to experience," Shimkus said. "The costs of the software, hardware and training necessary under the act are substantial, and may create further difficulties for hospitals and physicians."
In his testimony, Starnes represented small and rural hospitals in Illinois, and especially Fayette County Hospital and Long Term Care. Starnes began by stating that the past 18 months have been the most challenging of his 34-year career in health care administration. Accordingly, the current economy has sparked a rising number of Medicaid and self-pay patients, along with a corresponding decline in insurance patients.
“That scenario exists for most hospitals,” Starnes said.
He went on to say that the hospital needs a new CT scanner that will cost approximately $350,000, and a digital mammography unit that could also cost as much as $350,000.
Starnes estimated the costs for the hospital to meet the requirements of the HITECH Act will be $750,000 to $1,000,000.
“The act stipulates that we are to have the electronic health records system and computerized physician order entry system in place by the end of the year 2015, or our reimbursement from Medicare will be reduced,” Starnes said. “Combined, the cost of the diagnostic equipment and the information systems technology totals more than $1.5 million; often, it is not easy for small hospitals to come up with such funds.”
Shimkus said that he shares Starnes' concern that there is already a shortage of health care information technology professionals in the nation. The increase in demand for those professionals, due to the HITECH Act, will place an added burden on health care providers’ ability to meet the time line required by the act.
Starnes said that while it will be very expensive and time-consuming to meet the criteria established in the act, the concept is good.
“If we have patients’ current health care information available to us at our fingertips – including any chronic illnesses, acute injuries or abnormal vital statistics – in any hospital and physician office in the country, such information will be extremely helpful to the physicians and hospital staff in providing treatment to patients,” Starnes said. “If physicians don’t have to repeat tests that have already been administered, but instead can obtain that kind of information through the electronic health record, the cost savings can be substantial.
"Ultimately, the HITECH Act is intended to help enhance patient care and lower the cost of health care."  
The Heartland Health System board, which operates the hospital, and the Fayette County Hospital District Board, which owns the hospital building, both have indicated their support the initiative.
The challenge, they add, is to determine how and when to buy the equipment and implement the required systems.